Guanghua temple, Beijing

Religious belief and pictures

Concerning the role of ‘knowing the proper technique’ (Wittgenstein, Lectures on Religious Belief). The point of Wittgenstein’s  discussion in the Lecture II (Michelangelo’s picture of creation) and in Lecture III (the doodle-example, the woman-lying-on-her-bed picture) is two-fold. First of all, Wittgenstein emphasises that these pictures are not ordinary pictures, that our ordinary technique of using pictures (or phrases, or what have you) fails us here. (And, of course, that we go miserably astray if we do apply our ordinary technique in such cases.) However, and that is the second point, we do need some kind of connection with what we do in our everyday life. For without such a connection these ‘objects’ are meaningless, and our handling them an empty gesture. 

One question that arises is this: Why would the fact that pictures can be used to convey (communicate, express) a religious point of view imply that the categorical distinction between religious beliefs and ordinary, factual beliefs is discarded? I think that Wittgenstein, when discussing religious pictures, uses the word ‘picture’ in a special sense, at least not in the ordinary sense of something that depicts something that is independent of it and that it may depicts more or less accurately. Rather, this use of ‘picture’ is reminiscent of what in Philosophical Investigations he calls ‘a way of seeing’. It that is what Wittgenstein means here, then we can say, of course, that a religious picture conveys (communicates, expresses) something, but we should bear in mind that these verbs are then used in a special sense as well. I think that also in his early work Wittgenstein did not exclude the possibility of ethics/religion somehow being communicated. What he did insist upon is that this method of communication was not that of the use of ordinary meaningful language, as we use it in everyday life or science, in debates and discussions. But poetry, novels, the Gospels, music, architecture were always regarded by Wittgenstein as providing us with the possibility of expressing what is at stake here. 

There are two questions that this view raises: Are there any pictures or other means of expression that are particularly suited for religious expression? And in so far as the technique of using such pictures connects them to individual experiences, is this technique not vulnerable for a private language type of argument? 

I don’t know what Wittgenstein’s  answers would have been, but as far as the first question is concerned, my guess is that the answer is, ultimately, ‘No’. For if there would be such pictures, then they would qualify as such on the basis of certain properties and that comes dangerously close to saying that religion is about content after all. The hedge ‘ultimately’ is needed to capture the fact that within a cultural community/historical period we can in fact identify certain pictures as unambiguously religious. But that is ‘just’ an historical fact. 

As for the second question, that actually touches on a more general issue, viz., the role of individual experience in our conceptual (linguistic) system. Here it is important to bear in mind, that although having an experience is an individual matter (and the form that it takes may be even quite idiosyncratic), that does not mean that therefore experiences cannot be intersubjective, shared, common to a group. External constraints play a crucial role here. (Think of what Wittgenstein says in Remarks on Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ about the understanding of a ritual.) 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: fall 2002

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